Judas Coyne is an aging heavy-metal rock god who seems to be the very cliche of the over-the-hill rock star, from the requisite dead band members, to his interest in the bizarre and the freakish, to his succession of doomed relationships with female groupies whose ages are getting farther and farther removed from his own.
Jude lives on a farm in upstate New York. His "career" now consists of writing and recording songs for his own benefit - hiding them away like he hides himself away, letting his personal assistant handle the minutiae of real life.
When his assistant mentions he's run across the opportunity online to purchase a dead man's ghost - by way of the corpse's suit - for a thousand dollars, Jude jumps at the chance. What else would he do? What else would his fans have expected him to do?
The suit arrives at Jude's door a few days later, and almost immediately, strange occurrences begin happening. Frightening visions. Trance-like states of hypnosis, with blackouts and worse. Then things move quickly from bad to worse, and before you know it, Jude and his girl - a flavor-of-the-month goth chick nicknamed "Georgia" - are running for their lives, trying to outdistance an angry spirit.
I'm not going to run down the plot any further, partly because so many other reviewers already have, and partly because by now you've already decided whether HEART-SHAPED BOX is your cup of tea or not. In some ways it's a very traditional ghost story and in others, not so much.
HEART-SHAPED BOX was originally published in 2007, and I never bothered reading it because, quite simply, I didn't give author Joe Hill a chance. The fact that he was Stephen King's son was supposed to be some kind of big secret, but it was about the worst-kept secret since, well, some other really badly kept secret.
I figured here was the classic example of a guy making money and gaining fame off his father's name, and the fact that he was writing under a different name made it somehow worse. More cynical and calculated, or something.
Boy, was that a mistake, and not just because it shows what a shallow asshole I can be at times.
Joe Hill can really write. He takes a story that's been told around a million campfires and lifts it above the commonplace and into something special, developing a gauzy, southern-gothic atmospheric tension when the story moves from New York State to Georgia, on to Florida, and finally ending in Coyne's boyhood home, a dilapidated farm in Louisiana.
While I resisted reading Joe Hill's work because of his family name, it seems almost comically ironic to note that HEART-SHAPED BOX contains much of the stuff that made me such a die-hard fan of Stephen King's early work, most notably 'SALEM'S LOT and THE SHINING:
- The ability to create characters we may not like but can't help rooting for, maybe because we see ourselves in these people who so often act out of self-interest and personal greed, but who - we hope - have the chance to redeem themselves in the end, perhaps because we hold out the same hope for ourselves.
- The ability to insert humor into the narrative in the unlikeliest places and at the unlikeliest times, without taking away from the suspense, and even, as impossible as it seems, enhancing it.
- The ability to draw the reader into the world he's created, so by the end of the book you're not just watching Judas Coyne and Mary Beth try to fight their way out of the mess they're in, you're right there with them, experiencing the horror that is the relentlessly vengeful Craddock McDermott and his smoke-blue pickup truck.
If you're smarter or more perceptive than I am, maybe you'll see where the book is going before it gets there, and if so, good for you. But I didn't see it coming, so when Hill wraps up the mystery of why Judas Coyne had been chosen - and he was chosen - for haunting, it's a satisfying resolution.
Of course, there's still the pesky question of how - and even whether -the aging rock star and his troubled, three-decades-younger girlfriend will survive, but if you haven't read the book yet, you're going to have to do so to get the answer to that one.
I owe you an apology, Joe Hill. I'm sure you don't care one way or the other, but I didn't give you a chance, and it was my loss missing out on one outstanding horror novel for six years.
Great book. If you love horror - not blood and guts and gore, but real psychological horror - and you haven't read HEART-SHAPED BOX yet, go get it. You won't be sorry.